Go make a cup of tea or coffee, then come back and get comfortable. Settle down. Wrap a blanket around your legs (or stick your feet in a bucket of ice if you’re experiencing Heatwave 2018 right now!) and cuddle a cat or a cushion. I’m going to tell you a story about a story becoming a story.
So, the book I’m working on. It started last November for NaNoWriMo. Actually, it started before last November because I was plotting and outlining for a while before NaNo began. Actually, part of it started about a year and a half ago when two of the characters introduced themselves during a flash fiction project I did in January 2017. It’s been floating my brain and my computer, in bits and pieces, for about a year and a half. But really, really, it started long before that and I just didn’t realise it.
Because I’m a compulsive organiser (I am, I’ve accepted it, it’s part of who I am as a person and it always has been), I outline writing projects with a deep dedication. My last two novellas had super detailed outlines and although I ended up changing the end of the more recent one, the detailed outline was so totally necessary to get me through those projects in a way that worked for me. Pre-NaNo last year, I got stuck into outlining the book that was then called 22 Cards. It no longer has a name. It was going to follow five main characters through a month (it still is), with flashbacks winding through their present day experiences (it still has), as they encountered each other mostly in passing but sometimes a little more permanently (it still does). It was going to be based on the concepts and symbols in the tarot’s major arcana (it doesn’t anymore). I had it all figured out.
I wrote it, or at least a first draft of it.
And I didn’t like it. I didn’t not like all of it, but I definitely didn’t like quite a bit of it. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong other than I pretty much hadn’t stopped writing for about a year at that point, publishing two novellas and a bunch of short stories throughout 2017, and was feeling kind of burned out. I let it sit for a while until the burn-out vibes passed, picked it up again and decided what I needed to get back into the swing of things was a mission, so I signed up for Camp NaNo in April 2018. I got rid of the major arcana idea because that really wasn’t working for this project and these characters, set a goal of 50 hours writing for the month, wrote like a bat out of hell (a bat that can write, obvs), smashed through my goal and hated the thing. Again, not all of it, but enough of it. This time I put it down to life being a bit up in the air, which is was at the time, entirely scrapped the parts I was feeling particularly rotten about and let it sit for a bit. Again.
My head was spinning. I mean, my head is always spinning but this was different. This was not just the usual case of not being able to keep up with my own mind. It wasn’t artist-anxiety either because I hadn’t started to feel massively insecure about my abilities and I’m pretty philosophical about how once you get past what’s required to make something baseline readable, it’s mostly down to personal preference. Some people will read a thing, a bunch of them will think it’s OK, a few of them will absolutely despise it and if you’re lucky a few of them will love it. Whether people love or hate something is generally down to the people, not the thing. I’m cool with that. So my issue wasn’t one of self-doubt. It was something about this particular project. I couldn’t figure it out and that was driving me nuts.
I tried getting back to writing again and it happened in short creative bursts. Again, this was nothing new. Every now and then, when I’m super into what I’m working on, I’ll go through phases of living on coffee, working until I literally can’t see straight, sleeping for three hours in my clothes, waking up at 5am and starting again. It’s not healthy and I don’t recommend it, but it is what it is. Don’t worry, I have a husband who puts food in front of me and stands there until he’s seen me eat it. He’s also very tall so if I get too out of hand he takes my laptop away and puts it on a shelf I can’t reach. I’m well looked after, I promise, and I’m even getting not-too-bad at looking after myself.
In between the creative bursts, something very strange started to happen. My characters started to talk to me. Not literally. We aren’t quite there yet. But in their own way, the fictional people in my head began to converse with me and they had serious points to make. One of them – a retired contract killer who doesn’t enjoy killing as much as he finds a necessary satisfaction in it – politely pointed out that the reason I’d been having such trouble with his moral code, or lack thereof, was that he wasn’t a just person, as such. He was also a concept, an archetype. He was death and death has no moral code.
Another character – one who has developed into a glorious disaster of conceptual synesthesia, social manipulation and adrenaline junkie tendencies among other things – pointed out that he, too, was more of a concept, more of an influence, than a person. He was chaos and how did I not see it? I mean shit, I’d literally described him in the book (metaphorically) as wildfire, as half lightning strike, and my conscious mind at no point noticed that I was giving him very Lokean qualities (actual-Norse-god-Loki, not Marvel-Loki, who I’m not saying a bad word about but he is not the deity you’re looking for here).
Then two more spoke up. One let me know that the reason I couldn’t figure her out was that she wasn’t to be figured out. That was the point of her. She was duality, contradiction, a beautiful mess whose whole reason for being is specifically not to be understood and to bring her contrary nature to whoever and whatever she encounters. She is not a lesson or an educational experience. She is a series of questions with no meaningful answers. She is luck and magic and questionable decisions made on impulse and that’s exactly who she is supposed to be.
Another nudged me with her virtual shoulder and explained that she moved through a life of violence and crime unaffected by what she witnessed, by what she did, because she was vengeance. Not the nice, satisfying, balance-redressing kind but the brutal, immediate kind that is not to be fucked with. For the record, she’s not avenging herself, a family member, a lover or a friend. She’s just out to wreck some people who totally have it coming. She is the wild abandon side of vengeance, more a force of nature than a weapon.
Finally, as a majestic crow spent an entire week visiting our garden and perching right in my line of sight as I wrote, as I kept running into the Prayer of Saint Francis (which I previously hadn’t encountered for about thirty years), the last of my main characters whispered in my ear, “In case you haven’t noticed, I am prophecy and wisdom.” He is, was and has been since his conception a wandering god archetype – a little bit Odin, a little bit Jesus – an ex-soldier who left the military not because of the violence or the politics but because of the structure. He was hit by lightning, twice. He fell through every crack it was possible to fall through and landed somewhere between two worlds. Birds bring him messages. He only wants to go home. I changed his first name, which is only mentioned a couple of times in the entire book, to Francis.
All of them, together, let me know that they weren’t simply people. They were sort of people, but they were also sort of embodiments of familiar concepts, for better or for worse, which was all well and good but things had started to get weird. And I mean weird by my standards, which is pretty weird since my normal is a lot of other people’s weird. I threw some questions at them. What if this is too strange? What if it doesn’t make enough sense? What if it’s too non-linear? What if it’s too inconclusive? What if it can’t be squeezed into a genre-shaped box? What if the violence is too violent and the dark is too dark and it’s all too some other thing that art or entertainment or whatever name you attach to a collection of words is not supposed to be? What if what if what if?
And they, the fragments of my consciousness, the fictional-character-shaped representations of myth and experience and frustration and futility and hedonism and thin ice and vanishing lines, collectively said, “Shh. It’s OK. It’s just a story but it’s the story you’ve always wanted to tell. So tell it.”
And the story is not this is what happens to them or this is why these things happen.
The story is this is who they are.